January 25, 2010

Notre Dame Recruiting: Is our California recruiting effort worth the fuss?? (Plus thoughts on the NFL and Bernard/Leuders)

3) Unfortunate news for Notre Dame football this week coming out of Southern California, but I wanted to use the news about Anthony Barr's verbal commitment to UCLA as an opportunity to reflect on our recruiting in California in general.

First, maybe it's sour grapes, but I don't consider Barr to be as disastrous of a loss as it has been made out to be. It's unfortunate that we didn't get him because he's obviously a great athlete and you never want to miss out on a great athlete, but he seems like one of those guys who we wouldn't have known what to do with as far as position is concerned. He probably have would have shown up as a running back, then switched to linebacker, then safety, and four years from now, we'd be reading "Anthony Barr ready to finally break out in his senior year" stories. His ego is telling him he's an RB or a safety while his body screams out that he should be an outside linebacker or undersized defensive end.

This comes back to that whole RKG talk. Kelly wants "team guys." Not that Barr is a bad guy or anything, but you want guys who are going to put the team above their own personal interests. If the coach says "son, we think you're going to be a great defensive end in this program," you want a guy who is going to buy into that and lay it all on the line to be a great defensive end. If Barr's attitude is "I'm a safety because that's where I'm best suited for an NFL career," that's not doing anything for your college football team.

Barr would have been a better fit in the Charlie Weis era when everything was about catering to these guys' NFL aspirations. But the goal is to win college football games. I want ND players to go on to the NFL of course, but you want pro development to be a byproduct of winning and great play on the field. Kelly's big emphasis is on finding guys who will put the team above everything else.

Anyway, the whole Barr thing got me thinking about our California recruiting in general. California recruiting is important for this program, but how important?? For every great player we've landed out of California, it seems like we have an equal amount of Cali guys who end up transferring or having unproductive careers.

While we have always had a smattering of players from California on the roster through the years, it really seems like California recruiting has picked up as an integral part of our talent base in the last decade or so, especially during the Weis era. Heck, a lot of people (me included) were hoping that Brian Polian would stick around at ND just because of his California recruiting prowess alone. Weis had particularly good success out there with skill players because of his reputation as an NFL quarterback guru and pro style offensive coordinator.

I think you could even make a case that we have put more of an emphasis on California at the expense of some other states where we once had more success (i.e Texas). The question for me is whether the emphasis on California recruiting has been worth it, and whether we could do things to improve our success rate out there. Just because we can get a prospect from California to Notre Dame doesn't mean that guy is going to be the right fit or a good player.

Three thoughts on this issue:

1) Transfers -- One thing that I've noticed since we really started recruiting heavily in California is how many of these California recruits ended up leaving ND before their careers were over.

Here are the recruits we've landed out of of California since 2002. I also included their star ranking from Rivals.com.

2002 - James Bonelli (4 star), Chris Frome (4 star), Derek Landri (4 star), Rhema McKnight (4 star)
2003 - Freddie Parish (4 star)
2004 - Anthony Vernaglia (4 star), Terrail Lambert (3 star), Brandon Nicolas (3 star), Darrin Bragg (2 star)
2005 - none
2006 - Konrad Reuland (4 star) and Will Yeatman (3 star)
2007 - Jimmy Clausen (5 star) and Taylor Dever (3 star)
2008 - Dayne Crist (5 star) , Joseph Fauria (4 star), and Anthony McDonald (4 star)
2009 - Shaq Evans (4 star) and Cierre Wood (4 star)

By my count, we've landed two 5 stars, eleven 4 stars, four 3 stars, and one 2 star (Darrin Bragg.....the Ty Willingham era! Where 2 stars happen). That puts us at a total of 18 recruits from California in the last eight years.

Of those 18 players, here's how I would break things down:

3 superstars -- Clausen, Landri, McKnight -------- All three guy were multi-year starters who received some sort of national recognition during their times at ND

1 potential star -- Crist ------------ Crist is looking at a 2-3 year run as the starting quarterback at ND and seems like a perfect fit for Kelly's offense

2 productive starters -- Frome and Lambert -- Solid starter types

2 likely contributors -- Evans and Wood -- Probably can expect these guys to at least be in the picture for playing time and possible stardom

2 unknown -- McDonald and Dever -- Neither has played a lick so far; Not sure where their careers are headed.

3 busts -- Vernaglia, Bonelli, Bragg -- Guys who just never panned out. Vernaglia was the one that really stung out of this group since he was pretty heralded out of high school.

5 transfers -- Reuland, Yeatman, Fauria, Parish, and Nicolas -- Some of the "transfers" were for disciplinary problems, but these five never really fit in.

That's not all bad of course. I'd say about half the guys that we've taken from California have turned out well for this program, and the high end guys like Clausen and Crist and Landri have been spectacular additions.

But doesn't that feel like quite a few transfers?? I'm going with purely anecdotal evidence here, but it seems like we have been swamped with transfers from California in the last few years. I don't know what the issue is, but are these Cali guys just not comfortable at ND?? Or do they miss family and friends when they end up all the way across the country??

We even heard quite a few rumors about Wood and Evans heading back to California due to homesickness. I'm glad that they are back, but it was a little unsettling that both of them were talking about leaving after one year. Especially Evans since he was actually playing this year.

I get it though. These guys are leaving southern California and the warm sunshine and their families for the Midwest. It's a completely different animal. Unless you've lived here for a long time, it's hard to get used to spending 6 months every year where you literally never see the sun. Compare that to the California lifestyle where the sun is shining almost every day.

With some of these California recruits, it seems like they come out to Indiana for their visit and think "oh, it's Notre Dame, the campus is beautiful, I'll like it here" and then they get to that first winter and don't like it for whatever reason. Suddenly, they're thinking about heading back to the west coast and going to UCLA or Stanford or wherever. That's the risk that we take with some of these California recruits. A kid who grew up in Chicago or Ohio or Pennsylvania or Michigan is not going to have that same culture shock when they get to ND, so we don't have to worry as much with them about possible transfers for "lifestyle reasons." They know what it's like to see gray skies and 6 inches of snow on the ground at all times and flat farmland and months at a time where you can't go outside for more than a couple minutes. I love the Midwest, but it can get depressing as the weather turns bad.

2) Style of play -- Even though we consider ourselves more of a national brand in terms of our reputation and profile, the reality is that we play the majority our games in the Midwest. Between our 7+ home games and 2-3 road games in the Midwest, we're basically playing 10-ish games a year in our home territory. If you're going to play three straight Big Ten teams in September every year, you better be ready to get down and play some rough and tumble, physical hard-hitting football. And as the weather gets colder in October and November, we want to make sure we have a team that can handle tougher conditions. That's the type of football we played under Holtz with the Zoriches and Hecks and Grunhards and Stonebreakers and Stams of the world. We had a physical Midwestern identity in those days. Even a lot of the skill talent like Rocket and Watters and Todd Lyght came from the Midwest. These guys were already familiar with the type of football that we needed to play to be successful against our competition.

That's the thing for me with some of these California guys. Again purely anecdotal here, but the Cali guys are used to playing in wide open high school leagues that are geared toward Pac 10 football. More of an emphasis on skill and speed than toughness and playing physical. That is the reputation Pac 10 players in general. Super-skilled and talented, but the "soft" reputation pops up from time to time. We saw it in the bowl games this year, especially with Nebraska shoving around Arizona like they were rag dolls.

Not every California recruit is unsuited for Midwestern football of course. Guys like Aaron Taylor and Derek Landri have been very successful in the trenches at ND through the years. But for a program that has developed a "soft" label in the Willingham and Weis eras, I can't help but wonder if we have skewed too heavily toward skilled players who dazzle with their talent but come up small in the toughness categories that are so critical in football, especially in the Midwest. When I see us getting shoved around by the BCs and MSUs of the world, I find myself wondering if we would be more successful if we had more grinders on the roster.

The other thing is that the emphasis in California seems to have come at the expense of recruiting in other areas where we have had success, such as Texas. Texas high school football is a lot more aligned with the type of football that we see here in the Midwest. I miss having guys like Tyreo Harrison and Gerome Sapp and Cedric Hilliard and Anthony Denman on our roster. Tough, hard-nosed Texans. I would not be opposed to making more of an effort to grabbing some Texas guys in the future even if it comes at the expense of some of our efforts in California.

3) What has gone right -- I don't necessarily have a problem with recruiting California players of course. You always want the best players that you can get on your roster no matter where they come from. There's obviously a lot of talent out there, and we are VERY lucky to have recruited guys like Jimmy Clausen and Dayne Crist out of California. Plus, it's not like USC hasn't found plenty of California guys who are capable of playing a physical brand of football.

So what can we do to make sure that we not only have more success finding the "right kind of guys" out in California, but also ensure that they are happy and productive when they get to ND?? I'd say two things:

1) Be up front with them about the lifestyle -- Even though I know there's a lot of B.S. that goes around in recruiting, I think we probably should make sure that these California guys understand what it is that they are getting themselves into. Don't gloss over the weather or the Midwest. I'd sit them down with other Cali guys, have them talk to Clausen and others who have done it, and really give them a good perspective on what it's like. If you only tell these guys the good things about ND and coming to Indiana, you're setting yourself up for a lot of transfers down the road. It's better to make sure we lay it all out there for these Cali guys. Otherwise, we're betting off sticking to players in the Midwest and places where guys will be familiar with life in the Midwest. It doesn't make any sense to recruit California players and then they're miserable as soon as winter hits.

And I think you can really emphasize the positives of living in the Midwest. There have to be some out there, right?? If these guys plan to play in the NFL someday, chances are they will not be living it up in the sunshine in California. More likely they'll be shoveling their driveways in places like Buffalo and Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Minnesota. You better get used to playing football in the Midwest if you want to have a good pro career. That diversity of experiences can be a selling point.

Look at Penn State and Ohio State for example. You can have a Midwest location and still be an attractive place to play college football. Even though it's cold and dreary in both places, those programs have developed reputations for sending players to the pros and being great places to settle even after college. We should be looking to emulate that model by developing a program that attracts players and also ensures that they will want to stay and benefit from their decision to come to ND.

2) More RKGs -- By RKG, I'm referring to guys who truly view ND as the right place for them. Guys like Te'o. ND is the perfect fit for him even though it's 80 degrees in Honolulu and probably 30 degrees in South Bend right now (although it's been downright balmy the last couple weeks). Te'o probably misses the weather, but the benefits of being at ND and the experiences that he is having at ND outweigh any lifestyle changes. Te'o "gets ND" and what it is all about.

If we're going after a west coast guy, we better make sure he's the type of guy who's going to be comfortable at ND. Do your due diligence on him and talk to his coaches and find out what his personality is like. If he seems like the type of guy who is "BMOC" back home in southern California with all his friends and family there, he might not be the right fit at ND over the long haul. It's an inexact science of course, but it's something we should be studying closely.

This is so important for these out-of-region players. We need to make sure that they are the types of people who will thrive at a place like ND. Because we don't use JUCOs or stash players in prep schools or play games with scholarships, we need to make sure we hit on as manyrecruits as possible. Losing a third of our California recruits to transfer doesn't really seem like a great success rate to me.

Anyway, that's my thought on California recruiting in general. It is potentially a great resource for this program and a hotbed of talent that we can access with our national brand, but also one where we have had a number of disappointments and heartbreak through the years. Although losing Anthony Barr was a bummer, he seemed like the type of guy who might not have thrived at ND anyway with all his support structures back home in California.

2) Tough break losing Leuders and Bernard in the the past couple days. Not that either was unexpected, but it leaves us in a difficult spot with only 10 days until signing day. It's not like we can just reach into the well and grab a 4 star RB and a 4 star defensive end in the next week. Then again, I'm never really going to jump up and down about losing a white defensive end prospect, so it's not like Leuders is irreplaceable. My guess is that he'll end up as a solid college player who makes a two deep rotation by his junior year and maybe starts as a senior. Good for depth purposes of course but a big haul in 2011 at DE can easily make up for losing him.

I have more thoughts on the overall makeup of the class that I'll throw down on here as we get close to signing day, but right now I'm just focused on the few targets that are out there on the board. Right now, we are sitting with 17 recruits and ranked #21 overall in the country on Rivals.com. I would anticipate that we'll bring in another 5-8 guys depending on how the chips fall. Gotta figure Massa is a lock, and we are in good position with Spond and James and maybe Iaone. It seems like a few other guys have popped up on the radar recently, and of course there are the big fish still out there (Riley, Henderson, Ferguson, Christian Jones). If we could land even one of those big dogs and lock in the majority of the other guys on our radar screen, that would be a nice finish to this class and hopefully get us back up in the #10-15 range in the final recruiting rankings.

Ultimately, Kelly will be judged in recruiting on what he does in 2011 and 2012. He has focused his efforts thus far on assembling his staff and going full throttle with the guys already on the roster, and it's hard to jump in this late in the game to land the big time players that have been getting courted by other schools for years. I didn't expect him to show up and start reeling in a bunch of five stars right away, especially given how bad this program has been in recent years. I think we will have a better view of his recruiting abilities at this time next year.

Kelly can change the game for ND by winning ballgames. If he does that, we will become a major destination place for recruits again in the near future.

1) Finally some NFL thoughts:

1) First, could there be a more overrated broadcasting tandem than Joe Buck and Troy Aikman?? I've never been one to really rip announcers, but Buck and Aikman come up small in big games more than any other duo in the game. Are these two really the best that Fox has to offer?? When was the last time either of those guys has really set the tone for water cooler conversation while doing a game?? The only time I can think of is Joe Buck's "What a disgusting act!" line when Randy Moss mooned the crowd in Green Bay, but that was more because people were mocking Joe Buck for getting so outraged about it. I've watched probably a hundred games called by Aikman and Buck through the years, and I can't remember one time where their performances during the broadcast were memorable or even relevant to my experience watching the game.

Classic example of Buck and Aikman coming up small was on that last Viking drive that led to the Favre interception. Where were Aikman and Buck pointing out the disastrous clock management by Brad Childress prior to the Favre pick?? They never mentioned it!! How could you miss that?? For me, that was the #1 story coming out of that game. The Vikes were on the march, and Childress inexplicably pulls the rug out on the drive with back to back running plays like they were already in field goal range. It was a 55 yard field goal!! What was he thinking??! He approached the end of that drive like they had a chip shot and just needed to run some clock down before attempting a field goal. Childress completely mismanaged that situation, and I think it put pressure on Favre to feel like he had to make a play to put them in better position for that field goal attempt. If they had stayed aggressive on first and second down, I think they easily could have gotten down to the 20 yard line or so before bringing out Longwell. It was unbelievably bad game management. Even if Favre hadn't throw that pick, Longwell was staring at a 55 yarder to win it. Not exactly a gimme.

And yet Buck and Aikman never mentioned it!! They were completely asleep at the wheel while it was going on. Imagine if that was Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson doing that game. They would have been killing Childress for that, and rightly so. Same with Al Michaels or any great broadcaster. Buck and Aikman were completely overwhelmed by the moment and not paying attention.

I just have never seen what those two bring to the table. They don't have any sense of the moment, and the whole "I'm laid back, I refuse to get excited about anything" vibe from Joe Buck is annoying. It's the freaking NFC Championship game!! You're allowed to get excited and maybe get the viewers excited alongside of you. It's an overtime game with the Super Bowl on the line. Say something that I will want to tell my grandkids about. As corny as Nantz can be, at least Nantz adds to the experience for me when I'm watching a game. With Buck and Aikman, they are truly the definition of white noise.

2) I don't understand the "will he retire?" talk about Brett Favre. Why would he retire? The guy had a phenomenal season and played a great game up until that last interception. If you actually watched the game, there is no way you can conclude that Favre did not play a great game. They would not have even been in the game if it wasn't for Favre. He took some vicious shots and still hung in there and made some spectacular throws. I don't know how he is doing this, but Favre was a top 10 quarterback this year without question.

The Vikings did not lose that game because of Brett Favre. They lost because Peterson and Harvin and Berrian could not hold onto the football. If they didn't have all those fumbles, they would have won that game going away.

Favre should just come out in a couple weeks and announce that he will be back....in mid-August. We all know he doesn't want to do minicamps and training camp and all that, so there's no need to hide it. I can't believe I'm saying this, but I'd really like to see him come back next year. I enjoyed watching him in that NFC Championship game, and I'd like to see the Vikings make another run with Favre and all those weapons.

3) Speaking of the Vikings, I'm really bummed that they did not make the Super Bowl. Unreal how much talent they have. Their defensive line is so dominant it's not even funny. And with all those offensive weapons, it is amazing to watch them when they are clicking. The Vikes were constructed as the ultimate "big play" team, and they played like it. Guess the problem is that for every big play you might get out of Adrian Peterson or Harvin, you risk a big negative play on the downside. Still, their talent level is jaw-dropping, and it's a shame that they lost a game that they completely dominated in every category but turnovers.

I would have loved to have seen a Vikings-Colts Super Bowl. Favre vs. Manning with major legacy implications on the line. That powerful Vikings defensive line in a chess match with Manning. All those Vikings weapons on offense against a fast and aggressive Colts defense. It would have been a spectacular matchup and a game that really had me excited.

This Colts-Saints matchup just doesn't do it for me. The Saints are like the homeless man's version of the Colts. Their offense is good but not as good as advertised, and their defense is a sieve. I was not impressed at all with New Orleans even in victory. When you need 5 turnovers just to win that game in overtime at home while getting dominated in every statistical category, it feels like a massive fluke.

Lay the mortgage on the Colts -5.5 in two weeks as far as I'm concerned. I expect Manning to cruise to his 2nd ring.

4) As for Manning, the true testament of his greatness in my eyes is how he compares to two other elite guys like Brett Favre and Drew Brees. Both those guys were top 10 quarterbacks this year, but they look like chumps compared to Manning. After watching Manning in that first game against the Jets, it was jarring to see Brees missing throws and looking flustered in the pocket. I mean, this is Drew Brees. One of the best players in the game. And yet I found myself disappointed in his play all because I had just watched Manning carving up the Jets for three hours right before that.

Once Manning figured out their blitz packages, the Jets had no answer for him. One of the best performances by a quarterback I've ever seen.

Manning is going to torch the Saints secondary. Amazing player.


Anonymous said...

Again, nice blog.

And I couldn't agree more about recruiting more and focusing more, perhaps, on so-called RKGs.

The more a player is well-disposed to be at ND, happy and content to be in the midwest, and in just no way in over his head in picking ND for any number of reasons, the better off we'll be IMO.

They say ND isn't for everyone, and so it might behoove us to find the guys that it is for - even if they aren't flashy five-star guys from California.

Anonymous said...

Really enjoy your blog. Your ability to look at subjects from different perspectives sets it apart. Well done.

It will really be interesting to find out what really happened on those teams behind closed doors from 2007-09. Something just wasn't right. Was it Weis? Clausen? Assistants?

As time passes, I get the impression that BQ really was a driving force behind the success of 2005 - 06. The wheels fell off when he left.